Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On Amises and literature

I have extracted, in advance of its slow demise, posts I made to the Martin Amis discussion board, covering Martin Amis (MA), his father Kingsley (K), Larkin and others.

On Yellow Dog

Topicality is a hardly an issue, except perhaps in the general sense that Amis used to be clearly ahead of the game, with his novels set in a credible near-future, and that since his discovery of nuclear weapons and the millenium (so 90s!) his concerns have been at best contemporary and usually passe.

This is not a trivial point, since it means that we can examine the same world that he describes, and therefore can compare our view with his on an equal footing. The treatment of the tabloid press in YD appeared to me to fail because its depiction moved beyond satire and caricature into sheer fantasy. So, I'm not saying that YD is to be applauded for anticipating current events, I'm saying that it is to be mildly praised for having got its world-view righter than it seemed at the time.

Talking of prescience, Amis (K) in 1959:

Style, a personal style, a distinguished style, usually turns out in practice to mean a high idiosyncratic noise level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction

("She was a child and I was a child" (review of Lolita) )

Amis pere and fils
To continue the thoughts of father on son, K's view that M's novels were "unreadable" bears some analysis. M (discussing this, in I think, Experience) argues that this is a pose, or a typical response to a new rival or a representative of the younger generation. Well, this is possible, although you have to wonder why someone who reads a lot should have such trouble making it a few pages into a novel by an educated, literate writer

K doesn't just 'not like' Other People: he astutely picks out the inconsistency of the 'amnesia' that makes someone forget what plumbing is but remember what statuary is.

More generally, what K doesn't like is an obstrusive author's style (as noted above) or unreliable narrators. So when he finds M "unreadable" he is probably reacting not to the content but the characteristic authorial voice of "that little prick".

Larkin, MA and modern life

I'm re-reading Larkin's letters; they're a hard slog after Kingsley's, which tend to ignore the weather, his bowel movements, and the quality of the paper. Larkin had a talent for unhappiness: as he said once, 'Depression is to me what daffodils were for Wordsworth'. There is nothing wrong with the intellectual view that this world is all there is, and that most people would do evil out of laziness, but there's no need to be so down about it. Larkin sounds as if he's whingeing, rather than presenting any great analysis: cars cost money; they need to be repaired. well, blow me! Kingsley (no Pollyanna himself, of course) demolishes this approach in Jake's Thing: the dons discuss new chairs and
"then the cost was asked for and given as £125 and all over the room there were wincing noises[...] For a chair! they all kept saying--for a chair? Not quite all. Of course it seems a lot, said Jake to himself, but haven't you noticed that everything seems a lot these days, you fucking old fools? In the end the Domestic Bursar, after he had made it clear that it would be no use going back to the maker and trying to beat him down, was instructed to do just that."

[someone corrected “depression” to “deprivation”]

Well certainly that's what my memory thought-- deprivation sounds a bit grand when it's clear that most of his misery was the result of either dealing with things that are intrinsic to life (illness, loss, tedious practicalities) or his reluctance to surrender his 'freedom' to any of the numerous and overlapping lovers he became entangled with. Deprivation implies something that the world was doing to him, or failing to do: he was one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys who was incapable of enjoying the crumbs of comfort, and then concluded that he warranted no better.

Not that he couldn't write poems, of course, just that his world view and philosophy isn't worthy of serious analysis.

Larkin's "Sunny Prestatyn" of course prefigures MA's laments of the obscenification of everyday life. Written ?1962, published 1964. But Larkin does not imply that this is new or worsening (here: he does in "Going, going": "I thought it would last my time" (1972)): I think he would have said that our world is one in which beauty will be defaced and despoiled rather than appreciated, and this is not because of nuclear weapons or the Holocaust or the year 2000 but because of humanity. So not quite a contemporary hot issue for MA to take up.

I was amused by the band The Jam's album title of 1978 This is the modern world, we're-on-the-ball this-is-how-it-is-now, presumably unaware that according to historians the Modern World started in about 1500 AD, and according to culture critics this is the Post-Modern world!

The future

In a hundred years, will we be living in the Hyper Post Modern world?

Only if 1. we have survived comets, coldwaves, crustshakes and power-downs and 2. the younger generation decides it's worth the trouble to prolong the life of their elders by technology!

Rock stars write

Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star is a classic piece of evidence to prove the uselessness of eyewitnesses: Ian Hunter makes touring with Mott and Bowie as interesting as a saleman's itinerary, without at any point revealing anything about his friends, acquaintances or experiences.

And although Dylan's Chronicles is a different, and much better, sort of thing, it leaves a gaping hole where the "How I wrote my songs, what was in my mind, what I was trying to achieve?" chapter ought to be. He does, however, describe the difficult state of an artist who knows that he has run out of ideas but who nevertheless is impelled to do something, trying a wide range of styles and subjects hoping to hit on one that will reawaken his genius. In such a situation, the brickbats of the critics are almost painless since he already knows that he is producing substandard work not fit to share space with the good stuff; they can't beat him up any more than he's done himself. All he can do is wait and hope for better times. I think that's MA at the moment.

The novelist’s theme

To be fair to MA, he has consistently attempted to play against type by NOT writing about the family and mental life of an Oxford-educated novelist's-son novelist, in deference to that quaint old custom that it is the job of novelists to make stuff up. Well, apart from the Rachel Papers.
And Experience.

And The Information.

Talking of which, whose side is MA on? The first time I read it, I assumed that the author's sympathies lay with fuck-the-audience-I'll-be-complicated-if-I-want Richard, but on re-reading, Richard's preening of himself and abysmally low US sales of his latest novel (whoops) are clearly criticised, while Gwyn, for all his odious 'charm' as a person, is the innocent victim of his audience's enthusiasm. So is MA saying the audience should be courted or ignored as past redemption?

Nick Hornby

The main characters in High Fidelity and About a Boy are actually cleverly presented: I think Hornby deliberately sets up a tension between the usual "Narrator=author=good guy" stance and revealing "unconsciously" that the narrator is not in fact a fount of wisdom or even a very nice person; that, by the end, they have learned some humanity and humility is therefore much more effective than if they had been sensible from the start. High Fidelity, in particular, in its opening stages is breathtaking callous. What Hornby manages to do is to present these characters in a way which retains the reader's instinctive identification with them without limiting the scope for revealing their faults. I would say that he is clearly a sophisticated and thoughtful writer who, by appearing to be matey and simple and obvious, connects with a much wider audience than would be open to someone taking a snootier, flashier, clever-clever, approach. Hornby has problems with plots, though.

The end of The Information

Can anyone tell me what the following bit from the very end of The Information means:

Beware the ag├Ęd critic with his hair of winebar sawdust. Beware the nun and the witchy buckles of her shoes. Beware the man at the callbox, with the suitcase: this man is you. The planesaw whines, whining for its planesaw mummy."

I would defend the passage; certainly when read in context it is almost like a benediction, a reminder that life goes on, with its individual struggles with age and death. I would draw a parallel with Thackeray's envoi at the end of Vanity Fair, where he steps out of the story to say [paraphrasing through laziness] "Our little puppet show is over, the puppets are returned to their box, the stalls are packed up. They will be there tomorrow", or with Eliot's Prufrock
"We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown";
this is a moment when the author is communicating en clair, directly, like the musing in the playground [pp 62-63 of my paperback] which is MA as MA writing direct to the reader.

Flicking through The Information to find that passage, I kept coming across great lines "Of the pressures facing the successful novelist in the mid-1990s Richard Tull could not easily speak. He was too busy with the problems facing the unsuccessful novelist in the mid-1990s"


I have overcome my laziness, and Thackeray's envoi is:

"Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out."

which certainly resonates with The Information. A final example of stepping out of the narrative is Dylan at the end of "Desolation Row", where, having described the end of the world in Eliot's terms, goes on as author replying to the singer:
"Yes I received you postcard yesterday /
about the time the doorknob broke /
you asked how I was doing /
was that some kind of joke? /
these people that you mention /
I know them, they're quite lame /
I had to rearrange their faces /
and give them all anotehr name /
right now I can't read too good, don't send me no more letters, no /
not unless you mail them from Desolation Row".

(someone pointed out that planesaws aren’t what MA means)

I would prefer MA made it up and got it wrong (just like Gwyn Barry he hoped that sounding knowledgeable about carpentry would play well with his readers) than got it right by the sort of research that the reading list at the end of Yellow Dog implies. Truth isn't always stranger than fiction -sometimes it's more boring and less convincing.

MA’s style

The great thing about Mart is his willingness to be a prose poet and stylist.

This is spot on. And while we're on the subject of Larkin, his best novel is the prose poem A Girl in Winter that unobtrusively creates a textured narrative, of 'figures in a landscape'.

What MA gets a lot of stick for is his ambition to write well in a way that demonstrates "this is a piece of fiction. I am writing it for you", while others silently take the line that "this is truth. there is no author" while constructing (of course) an equally inauthentic work. The advantage that these latter have is that they benefit from the approval of the large pool of readers who believe the work is real and do not wish to be reminded that there is an author making it up. Dan Brown can always argue that his novel starts at the title page, and therefore the statement saying that it is based on fact is part of the fiction.

MA’s shopping list

"I'd be happy just to see his shopping lists"

What planet is she on if she thinks a spoilt and bone-idle toss-pot like the boy Mart has ever in his whole 56 years ever set eyes on a shopping list?

Strangely enough, a document has just come to light in the Hofstadter Centre for Literary Archives:

A shopping list for life, by MA (age 16)

1. Height
2. A toothbrush that works
3. Booker Prize
4. Nobel Prize
5. Money
6. Success
7. The Information
8. The respect of my peers
9. The respect of my father
10. The respect of my great friend Julian Barnes

The document has been annotated by a recent hand "3/10, must try harder"

Michael Frayn

I have a soft spot for his 60s novels: there's an excellent parody of Kingsley (Take A Girl Like You era) in The Tin Men - my copy of which has been stolen, the compliment that unscrupulous guests pay to good literature (my Rachel Papers, Dead Babies and first copy of Money went the same way-- noone seems to want to run off with Yellow Dog).

On atheism

There's an interesting interview with Douglas Adams reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt in which he notes that his UK readers greet his atheist views with a shrug, but his US readers are fascinated by them, and he ended up as an atheist icon there. It's disappointing that MA is backtracking to agnostic, but I can only suppose that recent world events (Tsunami, Darfur, 9/11, Rwanda, and the hurricanes) have started to convinced him of the existence of a benevolent creator directing the affairs of men in the best of all possible worlds.

Paul Macartney: songsmith

They had Paul Macartney discussing 'the craft of songwriting' on the BBC Radio Front Row last week. It was heavily trailed with a clip of him explaining how a tune developed, but left it unclear which tune. I didn't find out, because after he'd gone through a couple of his recent songs I turned off. Maybe it was the frog chorus. It would have been good if the interviewer had had the courage to say "Face it, Macca, you haven't written a serious song since 1969. Let's talk about your knack of conjuring melodic whimsy out of nothing rather than the process of creation of masterpieces. 1. Frogs 2. Ebony and ivory 3. Pipes of peace 4. Silly love songs ...

Susie Thomas on London Fields

But the really staggering feature of London Fields is not its narrative ingenuity or its millennial eclipse but the patronising representation of the working class who are, without exception, portrayed as vicious or ridiculous or both.
(emphasis added)

Well, I would except Kim and her mother, who are portrayed as neither.

And there is the point that to call Keith 'working class' is for ST (not MA) to rely on stereotypes and old class structures- MA places Keith as Cheat outside the class system, with only an accidental link to the virtues and practices of working class life as understood by people who, say, actually do some work every now and then and would consider loyalty to their family a vital part of their lives.

And is there not something quite funny in any case in a literary theorist writing an academic papers claiming to have a better and closer understanding of the lives of the poor and dishonest of London than anyone else?

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